In his speech at COP26 last year, Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov spoke of the dangers that melting glaciers pose to mountain communities, and urged world leaders to act to save Central Asia’s glaciers and water sources.
Less than a year later, the world was transfixed by the sight of the precise danger Japarov had warned of. Last month, a British tourist hiking in the eastern Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan captured the moment a glacier collapsed at the Dzhuku Pass. His footage shows an avalanche of ice sweeping down the slope and over the hiker in a matter of seconds.
The video, filmed on 8 July, attracted global attention to the effects of the climate crisis in Central Asia. The incident also happened just days after a glacier collapsed in Italy, killing 11 people.
“Glaciers are now melting and moving like snow avalanches when the weather warms up,” said Anara Sultangazieva, an environmentalist in Kyrgyzstan.
“Summer has been very hot in Europe and Central Asia for several years [and] extreme heatwaves have hit both regions,” said Peter Neff, a glaciologist and climate scientist at the University of Minnesota. He told The Third Pole that these warmer conditions, driven by climate change, “cause the ice on the mountain ranges to melt from the ground” and lead to glaciers collapsing.
According to the Kyrgyz Ministry of Emergency Situations, more than 2 million cubic metres of ice and snow was brought down by the avalanche – the equivalent of about 800 Olympic swimming pools.
Satellite images from 2013-16 show nearly 10,000 glaciers in Kyrgyzstan, covering 6,700 square kilometres. Between 1940 and the 1970s, the Catalog of Glaciers of the USSR recorded about 8,000 glaciers in the country, covering almost 8,000 sq km. While over time the number of glaciers – a crucial source of water for people in drought-vulnerable Central Asia – has increased, the area they cover has shrunk by 19%.
Glaciers and the mining industry
The Dzhuku Pass is not just a popular hiking route. It is also near Kyrgyzstan’s biggest gold mine, Kumtor – about 30 km as the crow flies.
Activists The Third Pole spoke with said that, as well as climate change, mining activity is degrading the glaciers around the Kumtor mine.
“Mining operations contribute to [glaciers] shrinking, whether through direct removal of ice or the deposition of waste and other dark materials on their surfaces,” explained Kalia Moldogazieva, an ecologist and director of Bishkek-based Tree of Life, an environmental NGO. Moldogazieva added that more disasters will occur if mining industry regulations are eased.
In early July, the Kyrgyz government announced plans to develop mining projects in the Tian Shan mountains. But it has also acknowledged the adverse effects of mining activities. In February this year, Dinara Kutmanova, minister of natural resources, ecology and technical supervision, made a statement regarding the dumping of industrial waste onto two glaciers near the Kumtor mine. Since last year, a legal dispute has been underway between the Kyrgyz government and Canadian mining company Centerra Gold, with the Kyrgyz government alleging the company has violated environmental laws, posing a danger to human health and the environment. (Centerra has denied these allegations.)
Moldogazieva said: “Since the early 2000s, scientists and climate activists in Kyrgyzstan have tried to implement new laws to protect the Davydov and Lysyi glaciers in Kumtor from industrial destruction. In 2017 some changes to the Water Code of the Kyrgyz Republic were made by our initiative, but these changes were not implemented at all, and I am afraid due to the new regulations letting foreign investors dig our mining places, we will have more environmental issues than before.”
“The mountain ecosystem should be treated with kindness and immediate attention,” said activist Anara Sultangazieva. “It is necessary to switch to the use of technologies that do not harm nature. Surely gold is expensive, but glaciers are more valuable. By 2050 water will be the most expensive [resource]: we should protect glaciers.”